Riding On: Afghanistan Veterans Cycle The Battlefields Of Northwest Europe

November 1, 2012 by Adam Day
At speed on the climb up Vimy Ridge. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]
At speed on the climb up Vimy Ridge.
PHOTO: ADAM DAY

For Canadian soldiers back home from combat in Afghanistan and suffering from operational stress injuries, adjusting to the civilian world can be more than difficult. This group of veterans sought respite by banding together and going on a bike journey across Europe’s battlefields.

Warriors have been coming home wounded for as long as humans have been around. It is an ancient rite—the most ancient, it seems safe to wager—to go away and fight for your clan, to risk death and injury on behalf of people sitting safe at home.

Though much honour surrounds the soldiers’ departure, somewhat less surrounds the return, historically speaking. Particularly this is true for the wounded; but most emphatically it is true for those with certain kinds of wounds. This may not come as a surprise, but there is a stigma associated with mental illness—particularly with post-traumatic stress disorder. The prejudice reveals itself as a weird and pervasive judgmentalism, an assumption of weakness that limits and undermines the wounded warrior and does an intense disservice to the honour with which they agreed to sacrifice everything for those sitting safe at home.

Perhaps an anecdote can make this clearer

Last spring, two Canadian veterans of the war in Afghanistan were in a tattoo parlour in London, England. Both of these guys—Nate and Tim—had suffered from Operational Stress Injuries, as the military now likes to call it, during their time in Kandahar.

The guys were in England to take part in a bicycle tour of European battlefields with a group of roughly 20 similarly afflicted Canadian veterans and a much larger group of English riders, all there to raise money for wounded veterans in Great Britain.

Nate and Tim don’t look any different than any other young soldiers, or any other young Canadians for that matter, but like many of the other wounded soldiers on the trip, their honesty was spontaneous.

While the tattooist was doing her work, she made small talk, asking the guys what they were doing in England. “We’re soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder,” Nate said. “We’re here for a bicycle tour, for rehabilitation.”

She didn’t reply, just went on with her work.

Later, after they’d paid and were walking out, she replied, “Have fun on your…depression holiday.”

Here’s a rough summation of some things that were thought and said in the wake of the tattooist’s head-shaking choice of words: that she couldn’t tell the difference between PTSD and depression was one thing, but there was a definite amount of disrespect implied in the lack of effort. And this disrespect was itself startling and disheartening, given who she was. The tattooist and her business partners were self-selected members of a relatively extreme sub-culture. Their bodies and faces were covered in ink with piercings too numerous to count, but she still couldn’t quite make the empathic leap to understand two guys whose recent past was so extreme it made her choices look juvenile. Had she thought it over, she would have realized that these are the type of guys who walk knowingly into live minefields so that people like her can be safe to express themselves however extremely they choose. She might have thought that, but the stigma got her first.

Some background on the disorder in question

These are some things you would learn about the nature of the stigma should you ever cycle across Europe with a group of people with the injury.

Call it what you like, whatever makes sense to you. A brain injury, PTSD, a wounded mind, operational stress injury, shell shock, a chemical imbalance, a spirit hammered by moral terror.

In its most basic description, this thing—most commonly called PTSD—is just another kind of war injury. What makes it different is that it’s not a public injury, not entirely or even immediately noticeable. Instead, it’s mostly private; it’s between one person and their brain: it’s an injured mind.

At its core, it seems to be a result of certain circuitry being overwhelmed byevents the brain cannot or will not process. The event doesn’t have to be huge in the mind-blowing kind of way you might be thinking—it can be a small thing or an accumulation of small things or whatever. In any case, the result is a flood of adrenalin and other hormones that break or blow out old pathways. And the result is, well, what they call an anxiety disorder but really isn’t that, not exactly. It’s more like having a piece of shrapnel stuck inside your head that you just can’t remove, a bad thing that stays with you and messes everything else up.

But really, the symbolic shrapnel is just part of the problem. It’s the tattooist and the prevailing approach to PTSD that reveals the rest of it. The diagnostic criteria for the disorder itself set out something alarming: you can’t really have PTSD if you’re still in the military because you’re still holding down a job—(i.e.; not dysfunctional), but as soon as you have PTSD you can’t really be in the military any more (i.e.; you’re deemed dysfunctional).

Then you can see how PTSD is kind of a trap in itself. The exact moment at which a normal soldier admits they have coping issues is the moment they stop being a normal soldier and get shunted into a parallel world of bureaucracy and isolation, where people treat them like they’re weak. They can no longer handle weapons and their vision of themselves as warriors is threatened. This is a nightmare world for a soldier; which is to say, it seems like you could get PTSD from the trauma of being labelled with PTSD. Another way to say it is this: it seems that the mental health system makes people worse, not better.

Probably the most difficult part of the injury is how it cuts the person suffering from it off from everybody and everything else; often the things that mattered before don’t matter so much anymore. Which leads to the point of this cycling trip and the reason that these Canadian Afghan war veterans flew overseas to bike more than 500 kilometres across old European battlefields: it’s becoming clear that one of the most single important parts of getting better is, in the words of the clinicians, strong social support.

But this is only a phrase.

What it means in daily life is that you have good buddies around you, people who aren’t clinicians, people who are just regular friends with whom you can do regular stuff—like going for a bike ride.

The top of the ridge, with the Vimy memorial in the background. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]
The top of the ridge, with the Vimy memorial in the background.
PHOTO: ADAM DAY

Big Battlefield Bike Ride

“Never have I seen so many people take such great pleasure in enduring major hardship for the benefit of others,” said one of the jovial historical guides as the 300-odd cyclists gathered around him for a lecture in downtown Dieppe, having just ridden more than 100 kilometres across tough terrain. For five days, this would be the trend—long and often daunting cycle journeys across very hilly countryside, ending with emotional ceremonies in wildly significant places. The route led the cyclists through Dieppe, Amiens, Arras, Vimy Ridge, Ypres and finally to Dunkirk.

The group of riders is made up of all sorts: lawyers, veterans, triathletes, eccentric English gentleman, single women, the disabled, cycling enthusiasts and, most specifically, the wounded, both Canadian and British, from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Canadians are here with a group called Wounded Warriors, which is a grassroots effort to support OSI sufferers who might otherwise be slipping through the cracks. The group is run by two currently serving officers—Captain Wayne Johnston and Captain (Padre) Phil Ralph—and is supported by donations and government funding. While it began in 2006 as a fund to comfort wounded soldiers transiting through the coalition hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, the effort has most definitely shifted to focus on helping soldiers with stress injuries.

“Mental health is the one area which sadly is growing and the biggest issue within the CF is getting people to stick their hands up and say, ‘I need help,’” said Johnston, the founder of Wounded Warriors. “The more people talk about it, the better. And while Veterans Affairs and DND are trying to get to grips with it—and the treatment is better than it was, fair enough—it’s still not good enough.”

Johnston is quick to point out that a key part of the difficulty in treating PTSD comes from the difficulty of understanding the injury itself. “I think the professionals themselves are grappling with it—50 or 60 years ago, some of the guys on the bike ride would have been locked up. Now, instead, they just give us pills and chats,” he added. “One of the purposes of the bike ride was to show them there’s a better way. Let’s get out and live. It’s about getting in a better place so they can get better.”

Johnston, Ralph and their Wounded Warriors organization linked up with a British counterpart, the Help for Heroes charity, in order to take part in the battlefield bike ride. To be sure, Help for Heroes (H4H) runs a very slick, very well-calibrated operation. What H4H does so well is separate politics from the soldiers, emphatically reinforcing at every opportunity that supporting the soldiers does not mean you support the mission. Beyond this, their fundraising efforts are often brazen attempts to appeal to a wider audience—they are famous for parading their fatigue-wearing, life-size dancing teddy bears, for example.

But you can’t argue with what they do, or their success in doing it. The bike ride this year raised more than $900,000 dollars.

This cycling trip is a good example of H4H’s methods. Instead of simply asking for money, they ask people to get involved, and then give them something to do.

And for the Canadian soldiers, it works. The crunch and grind of long-distance suffering on their bikes provides a respite from the rest of their tribulations. The hills are a conquerable enemy, the cheerfulness of the Brits yelling ‘Canucks!’ and ‘There go the colonials!’ as the Canadians pass gives a certain kind of strength.

Endurance cycling as rehabilitation

One of the strange contrary findings in the field of PTSD research is that incidences of the disorder lessen with exposure to additional trauma. Which is to say, the more stress a person endures, the better they seem to be at finding a way to cope with it. Perhaps not surprisingly, the cycling trip, which was full of genuine hardship, seemed to bring out the best in the guys. Removed from the context of difficulty and hardship, it’s easy to be anxious. But put them back in the suffering and they found a kind of redemption. PTSD is a notoriously slippery disease, but if sufferers can be said to be unified by any one symptom, it would be this: where an uninjured person might live by the motto “learn from the past, live for the moment, plan for the future,” the hardcore PTSD sufferer could well be said to be living for the motto “live for the past, endure the moment, forget the future.” This trip and its hardship seemed to put them back happily in the moment, ready to plan for the future.

But PTSD has more than just psychological symptoms and identity disturbances. There are literally dozens of real-life issues that arise from the disorder—substance abuse, unusual anger, sleepwalking, nightmares, paranoia, violent sleeping, violence in general, and the list goes on. Managing the symptoms of this injury can be, in the words of one rider, like “pushing spaghetti uphill.”

But yet, by the end of the ride, back in London and about to depart for Canada, the vast majority of the soldiers were evidently strengthened by the experience. “This trip has brought me to a place where I can move forward with my shit,” said Josh during the group’s final mess dinner, where each soldier got a chance to say his piece.

“I didn’t want to come forward,” said Kyle. “I didn’t. But now I’m happy I did.”

Many, if not all, of the Canadian veterans are in some kind of therapy for their injury, so they have the ability to often sound like clinicians themselves, but most reported that the rehabilitative benefits of this trip were on a level well above therapy. “I recognized the symptoms in myself,” said Phil (a soldier, not the trip’s organizer). “I’m not the same person I was before I went to Afghanistan. It’s like carrying all this baggage. I always felt like I had a lump in my throat or a weight on my chest. It takes a lot of courage to come forward like this, because careers can be stalled. For me, I got a lot of closure out of this ride. I was going to leave my wife, but I had the time to sort that out on this ride. And now I’m not.”

And it’s definitely true that careers can be stalled, or worse. Several of the soldiers were on their way out of the military, bound for uncertain futures, possibly alone with their injury. “The stigma stems from the old dogs in the army, the guys who think we’re built on a culture of being the biggest, baddest man and if you’re not that you can’t do your job. They teach that if you have an issue, you’re weak,” said Tim. “It’s only recently that guys like Wayne and Phil, kind of revolutionaries, are doing something about it. They started saying that it’s OK to get help. Fixing this is not something you can do on your own. Or, you can try, but…”

“The stigma is about trust,” said Johnston. “Everyone sees what happens to guys who stick their hands up. They disappear. They go here; they go there; they’re taken out of the mainstream. In the forces, it is career ending, that’s the stigma. Hence, I don’t want to stick my hand up, I’ll suck it up.”

Ceremony at the Vimy Ridge memorial. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]
Ceremony at the Vimy Ridge memorial.
PHOTO: ADAM DAY

Vimy Ridge

The inarguable highlight of the Canadian soldiers’ battlefield bike ride was the visit to Vimy Ridge on the tour’s fourth day. The entire group cycled as a pack in their matching uniforms, on matching sponsor-supplied Cervelo bicycles, up the ridge and through the park, to the memorial.

“Welcome to Canada,” Capt. Ralph, the chaplain, said to the crowd of more than 300 riders. “This is holy ground.”

The British riders stood and watched as the Canadian veterans placed wreaths at the base of the towering monument which stands in a battlefield park that was given to the people of Canada by a grateful French nation. Ralph spoke about wars old and new and about the timelessness of being among the wounded. “This monument reminds us that this is not new” and that you are not alone.

After the ceremony, the Canadians gathered and sang O Canada just about as loudly and proudly as they could.

Postscript

The one thing I’ll tell you for sure about the subject is that PTSD is real. I know that sounds maybe a little dumb, but I have seen enough—observed enough incongruities, if you will—to be absolutely certain that some kind of brain injury can occur to soldiers at war.

Now it wasn’t so much that I thought it was imaginary before, it was just that I hadn’t seen it for myself. I didn’t know its mechanism of action, or couldn’t grasp how it worked, is a simpler way to put it. I’d seen lots of ‘effects’ of it, met lots of soldiers who seemed twitchy or haunted or self-destructive that probably had it, but I didn’t have any kind of understanding of why or how they had gotten all messed up.

Now I get it a little better: how one or more small events—a stress overload combined with mortal/moral terror (for yourself or others)—can basically sear the brain, literally dissolve identity structures and value systems, make the individual’s entire psychological package feel unstable and worse, somewhat untenable.

It seems as if sufferers have been knocked out of time, somehow, riveted to the past, unable to process the trauma. But in any case, the details of the injury are not the important thing. Here is the important thing: these are strong people who endured unlimited danger while wearing a Canadian flag and, for better or worse, fighting in the name of Canada. They’re still in danger now.

Suicide rates among Canadian Forces members are the highest they’ve been since 1995. Studies have conclusively proven that without proper support and care, sufferers of PTSD are more likely to kill themselves. “It’s time to end the stigma,” says Johnston. “We’re talking about not just soldiers, we’re talking about keeping families together and we’re talking about keeping soldier’s alive. Mental health can be so debilitating, it’s as deadly and lethal as an IED; it’s as random as an IED.”

 

 

Email the writer at: aday@legion.ca

Email a letter to the editor at: letters@legionmagazine.com

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